THE WOODLANDS — Nora Hazon, a high school teacher who will be voting for the first time Tuesday, came here Saturday expecting to see Ted Cruz. Instead she got Heidi.
"When I saw it was her, I was just like, 'It doesn't matter. I want to go — I want to be part of it,'" said Hazon, who plans to vote for her home-state senator and is now trying to convince her husband, a supporter of Donald Trump, to do the same.
With the Texas primary looming, Heidi Cruz is playing a central role in her husband's efforts to shore up his support at home, an undertaking with higher-than-expected stakes. Cruz needs a big win here to regain control of a race that has been trending in Trump's favor for the past three weeks, raising questions about the Texas senator's chances.
Of course, the role is not new for Heidi Cruz, who has taken a leave of absence from an executive position at Goldman Sachs to focus full-time on her husband's campaign. In addition to being deeply involved in fundraising, she has been a regular presence on the campaign trail in early-voting states — especially Iowa and South Carolina — and has won rave reviews for softening the image of a candidate who is more often than not portrayed as less than personable.
Now, her star power is being put to the test in Texas.
"She could run for office in her own right, quite frankly," said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who chairs Cruz's campaign in Texas. Patrick later recalled being struck by her persuasive powers at campaign events they have both attended, saying, "I think when undecideds meet her, she walks out of the room changing minds."
In the Lone Star State, Heidi Cruz's mission appears to be not so much changing minds as keeping them from changing. With Trump proving to be Ted Cruz's closest competition at home — tying him in at least one poll — she is barnstorming the state, spending Friday through Sunday visiting 10 cities and towns — a good number of them Cruz strongholds where he stands a chance of winning all of the delegates come Tuesday.
As a surrogate, Heidi Cruz is no attack dog. But at gatherings Sunday here and in Nacogdoches, she nodded to many of the defining contrasts between Cruz and Trump, alluding to her husband's opponent as someone who has recently changed his mind on "every single" view he held 60 years ago.
"It's too late for someone to decide that they've become a conservative in the last year," she declared at The Woodlands Bible Church, just down the road from where her husband attended high school.
On the stump, Heidi Cruz is a lot like Ted Cruz: relentlessly on message and happy to talk at length about the mechanics of campaigning, rattling off fundraising numbers and picking apart media analysis of the race. In Nacogdoches, she specifically addressed the suggestion that her husband's campaign is doomed if he does not do well in his home state.
"I'm here to tell you we don't have a one-state strategy," she said. "We're going to keep going the distance regardless, but we do know how this state is the crown jewel of Super Tuesday, and this is our home."
When a reporter speculated the night before on Fox News about Ted Cruz losing Texas, Heidi Cruz recalled her daughter Caroline sticking her face in front of the TV and issuing a stern rebuttal. "Not gonna happen!" the 7-year-old said.
"I just have to challenge you," Heidi Cruz told the crowd in Nacogdoches. "Please, please, live up to Caroline Cruz's expectations and make sure that it's not gonna happen."
Most of all, though, Heidi Cruz offsets the image of a candidate who is often portrayed as a doctrinaire crusader. She sometimes shares how he spontaneously calls her from the road and serenades her with Broadway tunes — a practice that led to an awkward rendition by her husband during a CNN town hall earlier this month. Then on Saturday, she told the audience how her husband, in the throes of preparation for a debate earlier this month, suddenly burst into her hotel room bearing roses and a box of chocolates: Valentine's Day was around the corner.
"She’s the softer side of Ted Cruz," said JoAnn Fleming, a conservative activist from Tyler who serves as the campaign's Texas Tea Party chair. Fleming, however, offered a word of caution: "People should not mistake that approachable side of her to think that she can’t hold her own in a debate."
In Texas, Heidi Cruz has some sway with segments of the Republican Party that have historically been cool toward her husband, including a business community that largely backed his opponent, then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, in their bitter 2012 Senate race. She is believed to be one of the reasons that Dewhurst donated $2,700 — the maximum amount — to Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign last month. Two weeks earlier, Dewhurst gave the same amount to Marco Rubio's presidential campaign.
With two days until the nominating contest here, the Cruz campaign is not letting up on its home-state push. Hours after Heidi Cruz finishes her weekend sweep on Sunday night in Brenham, her husband will cross into Texas from Oklahoma for a rally Monday morning in Dallas. Joined by Gov. Greg Abbott and former Gov. Rick Perry, Ted Cruz plans to hold two other rallies later Sunday, one in San Antonio then one in Houston.
Skeptics say the 11th-hour campaigning at home shows the senator is scrambling to salvage his home-field advantage. Heidi Cruz put it a different way as she finished her remarks here in one of the most reliably Republican regions of Texas.
"I love Montgomery County,” she said. "Don’t disappoint Ted on Tuesday."